An analysis released Tuesday of recent satellite imagery has confirmed reports that North Korea tested last week what could be the smallest stage of a rocket engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The influential 38 North website, run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said the imagery “shows evidence of a recent small rocket engine test,” though it was “not possible to confirm whether this test was for an ICBM engine” from the images alone.
Media reports last week citing unidentified U.S. officials said that the North had carried out a rocket engine test that the United States believed could be part of its program to develop a long-range missile. The reports said Washington had assessed that the test could be for the smallest stage of an ICBM.
In March, North Korea heralded the successful development of a new, indigenously built “high-thrust engine.” In an ominous warning, leader Kim Jong Un appeared to indicate that this test was of an engine for a long-range rocket.
“The whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries,” state media quoted Kim as saying at the time.
In September, the North also announced a successful ground test of what experts said was its most powerful engine to date.
In the satellite imagery of this month’s test, 38 North observed “numerous tire tracks on the test stand’s apron and at the nearby garage that were not previously present in a June 10 image, indicating recent heavy vehicular traffic.”
Such traffic was similar to that seen for previous engine tests, according to 38 North.
“More significantly, the image shows widespread, but minor, damage to vegetation surrounding the base of the test stand where rocket engine exhaust is directed during tests,” the analysis said. “The minor damage suggests that the recently conducted test was of a relatively small engine.”
The imagery also showed that Pyongyang has made advances in terms of its ability to quickly conduct such engine tests, 38 North said.
“The fact that this test was conducted only twelve days after the June 10 image showed no evidence of test preparations reinforces that North Korea possesses the technical and logistical capabilities to conduct such tests with little or no advance warning,” it said.
There has been speculation that the North will conduct an ICBM test after Kim used a New Year’s Day address to claim that Pyongyang was in the final stages of developing a long-range missile capable of hitting the continental U.S.
Although some experts believe North Korea could still be years away from acquiring a reliable long-range missile capability, Robert Soofer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, said earlier this month that Pyongyang “is poised to conduct its first ICBM test in 2017.”
Just days later, the North warned that it was “not too far away” from testing such a missile.
U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed that a launch of a long-range missile by Pyongyang “won’t happen” on his watch, but the North has conducted 12 missile launches in the first six months of this year as it moves closer to mastering ICBM technology.
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